‘Alumni are the best ambassadors the Netherlands has’
Dutch and foreign alumni from Leiden are the oil that keeps the wheels of Dutch-Asian relations moving smoothly. That’s one of the conclusions reached during the area day of the Dutch ambassadors in Asia and Oceania. All of them gathered in Leiden University’s Academy Building on 30 January.
Getting more out of the knowledge exchange between East and West
The purpose of the meeting? To find out how everyone can get the most out of the knowledge exchange between East and West, and to see how embassies and scientific institutions can benefit from each other. They also attempted to shape the outlines of a plan for the coming years. Some twenty-five ambassadors and various professors from Leiden attended the meeting, while Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker and Dean of the Humanities Faculty Wim van den Doel also invited representatives and officials from various other Dutch universities, colleges and scientific institutions.
Asia is developing fast
The Asian continent is booming and the region’s Gross National Product is expected to surpass that of Europe and North America sometime between 2025 and 2030. But Asia is also developing its scientific capacity at a tremendous rate: the best Dutch universities, including Leiden, can always be found in the top-100 rankings of universities, while five Asian universities can already be found in the top fifty. It’s perhaps true that Asia has been able to learn from the West for a long time, but the shift towards the East has already begun: several Chinese science faculties already have access to equipment that Dutch scientists can only dream of. Ko Colijn, Chairman of the Clingendael Institute, also emphasised that relations with Asia are about more than just business and economics. Other important themes are innovation, security, law, and culture. For example, more and more Asian talent can be found in western conservatoria.
Knowing and getting to know each other
Everyone attending the meeting also agrees that academic alumni will play a crucial role in the improvement of relations with Asian countries. And this doesn’t just refer to those Dutch alumni spreading out all over the globe, but also to Asian students who have studied at Dutch universities. Hans Schutte, Director General of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science mentioned about six prominent Asian ministers who have studied in the Netherlands. ‘In the relations with and in the East, people-to-people contacts are what matter,’ he emphasised. He further stressed the importance of networks, of knowing people and of getting to know people.
More Chinese students coming to the Netherlands
Another theme that was discussed was attracting Asian students; you first have to have students who can become alumni after all. Aart Jacobi, Dutch ambassador in Beijing, explained that 400,000 Chinese youngsters travel abroad for their studies every year. Of these, 21% go to English-speaking countries like England and Ireland. For most of them, this isn’t just about getting a diploma, but also about experiencing different cultures. Approximately 6,700 Chinese students come to the Netherlands every year, and it is expected that the number of Chinese students travelling abroad will continue to rise in the coming years. That means more will also be coming to the Netherlands, and to Leiden.
But the question is: are we ready for them? A well-organised programme that facilitates Chinese students is just as important as attracting them, Jacobi argues. However, many of them do often struggle with the English language, while Chinese students generally prefer studying individually, rather than in groups. They also tend to stick together and typically don’t get involved in Dutch student life. Creating activities that suit them and other Asian students is therefore very important. ‘And they work extremely hard,’ Carl Stolker said in his introductory speech. ‘Including ten Chinese students in a wider group generally increases the quality of the entire course; they usually get the highest grades, which encourages other students to work harder as well.’
Only in Leiden
Students who’d like to study Japanese, Chinese or Korean in the Netherlands, can only do so at Leiden University. Currently, about one hundred students are studying Japanese, another hundred Chinese and another forty are studying Korean. Aside from them, a few dozen students are also enrolled in South and Southeast Asian Studies. These students will graduate with an above-average understanding of those cultures and will also speak those languages. That could give them a very important role to play in the near future.
Investing in carriers
One thing is obvious: an international exchange of knowledge needs carriers, human carriers. And if you’d like to expand your exchange of knowledge, you’ll need to invest in the relations between those people. The plan of attack discussed at this meeting will determine how that is achieved..
(3 February 2015)